Mississippian Mound Builders
Before the discovery of the Americas by Europeans, there were ancient Native American civilizations that flourished throughout the continents. Different regions were known for different things, whether it was hunting, gathering, or trading various commodities. One region in particular, from the Mississippi River Valley to the Ohio River Valley, was made famous by mound building (Joseph, p. 322). Mound building is a sacred and sometimes religious practice that many Native Americans took part in, but the tribes along the major river valleys are the ones that are most well known (Josephy, p. 200). Throughout the earliest recorded time periods, these Native Americans grew and developed into what we call the Eastern Native Americans. The Mississippian mound builders of this region flourished until the late seventeenth century when disease and conflict with new settlers dissipated their populations.
North America was not discovered by European explorers until the mid fifteenth century, and before this time the land was dominated by hundreds of Native tribes across the continent. It was a civilization completely unique from ones developed on the other continents because of the much slower growth rate. The Mississippian tribes were first recognized around the year 500 AD (Jennings, p. 150). Before them, mound builders were classified into two other groups, the earliest of which, the Adena, has been said to have existed as far back as 1000 AD (Jennings, p. 151). Their contributions, as well as those made by the Hopewell, who flourished before the Mississippians, made the practice of earth building what it was. The Hopewell popularized the practice of building mounds for burial purposes, while the later Mississippians kept a religious focus to their construction of them (Joseph, p. 210). Aside from the construction of mounds, these Native tribes took part in different farming techniques and hunting practices.
Culture in the Mississippi region was built mainly on the practice of earth building. Native American mounds were used for many different reasons and were built with skill and precision. The most common types of mounds were those used for burying the dead, ones creating figures or artwork, or those representing temples in their religious practices (Joseph, p. 241). Burial mounds were created reverently to show appreciation and memorialize the dead. Most of the time they were shaped like cones of varying heights and became the resting place of multiple Natives. These mounds were known to encase not only bodies, but also various material possessions that were deemed precious by their owners and other members of the tribe. The Mississippian tribes focused mainly on the religious aspect of mound creation. They created fortresses in which they could perform their different rituals and ceremonies.
In the years spanning from the end of the eleventh century, politics became a central focus of Native American culture in this region. The Mississippi region was home to the most different tribal nations in all of North America (Kehoe, p. 310). The Chickasaw, Choctaw, Natchez, Quapaw, and Tunica tribes are examples of the inhabitants of the region during this time. They established various chiefdoms, with tribes ruling over each other. This region is who popularized the chiefdom, which is a large group that is based on kinship and has at least two social levels within it. It is ruled by a chief, or “cacique” (Leonard, p. 510). The Natchez popularized the name “Great Sun” for their leader because their worship was circled around the Sun since it was the largest object in their society (Josephy, p. 388). While many tribes began in this area, not many lasted for more than a couple hundred years. This is because the Mississippi region could never band together as a unified nation. They were constantly at war with each other and as soon as a new chiefdom could be developed, another was falling apart at the hands of its own people.
The emergence of horses and guns brought over by the Europeans created an entirely new way of life for the Natives (Leonard, p. 601). Their culture took a shock when they were able to learn that firearms were the new pinnacle of modern warfare. Horses enabled travel to be much easier than it was previously, and so tribes did not have to make such a large production out of travelling to a new area. After one spot was exhausted, they could move on to the next.
Daily life in the regions surrounding the Mississippi and Ohio River valleys included farming and hunting along with the practices of mound building (Joseph, p. 392). The rise of the Mississippian Native cultures from the Hopewell brought with it the “Woodland” period that lasted until almost the eleventh century (Joseph, p. 405). This period brought growth of things such as sunflowers and various grasses that added to the farming in this region. Maize, a very popular food crop among Native American tribes, was also very popular in this region (Kehoe, p. 562). Pottery making was also a very popular craft in this region, and the use of shells found in the river allowed theirs to be more unique than tribes in other regions (Joseph, p. 492). The dwelling places of these Natives were in individual farmsteads within the chiefdom, or even mounds built for habitation. The living arrangements highly depended on what rank a family had within the tribe. Archaeologists have found the most evidence in this region that the people were divided into groups based on whether they were “somethings” or “nothings” (Leonard, p. 507). Each tribe had its own method of dividing its people into these groups, and the Natchez called their peasantry the “Stinkards” (Kehoe, p. 791).
Hunting and gathering were also major aspects of Eastern Native American life during this time period. They were called “Woodland” natives because of the area in which they lived, and the areas by which they travelled (Jennings, p. 612). They hunted for deer and elk and other wild game, and it was as much sacred as it was a necessity. The people did not simply just kill an animal for sport, it was also a ritual and no part of the animal could be wasted (Jennings, p. 628). The meat was all eaten, the hooves used to fuel fires, and the skins were used to create their temporary dwellings and sleds to carry their belongings on during their travels (Josephy, p. 637).
Throughout the Americas, conflicts arose between tribes that were taking place long before European settlement of the continent. The Mississippi region was no different, and in fact, as there were so many different tribes in that region, the fight for power went on constantly (Joseph, p. 718). Apart from warring for superiority, Natives fought with each other over revenge. “Mourning wars” were popular among Eastern tribes, and usually these started with a grieving mother or widow who encouraged the other warriors in the tribe to avenge the loved ones’ death (Josephy, p. 819). With the entrance of new settlers with superior material possessions into the Americas, raiding parties became exceedingly popular in the late seventeenth century onward. These were not as popular among the Eastern tribes as they were in tribes like the Navajo and Apache, but they still occurred (Leonard, p. 761). Deaths resulting from these often caused warfare to revert back to vengeful fighting. Warring tribes were cyclical, and it seemed as though one fight could not end without another beginning. Before the popularity of horses and guns, tribes had to fight in their own territories, and the losing nation lost their home.
After the discovery of the Native American tribes by European newcomers, conflicts began over who would be able to occupy the land. The new settlers felt that they were the ones that “discovered” the new continent, and they had little thought as to the people that they had originally encountered there (Leonard, p. 910). The Eastern natives were the first people that they came into contact with, and in the beginning things between both groups was civil. The Natives in North America had a far different relationship with these early settlers than the Incans and Mayans had experienced with the Spanish conquistadors (Kehoe, p. 896). But, it was all too soon that the true goal of the European exploration was divulged. The Europeans had claimed this new land as theirs as soon as they landed on it and had time enough to write home and stake these claims with their rulers, while the Natives felt as though the land had always been theirs. Manipulating the Indians was an easy task being as the Whites had things to offer them like tobacco products, guns, and horses along with other commodities never before seen before (Kehoe, p. 906). Unfortunately, the Native populations were destroyed by persistent efforts of the settlers. The steady influx of new diseases such as smallpox, measles, and tuberculosis also killed off large numbers of the Native American populations (Josephy, p. 981). Enslavement also became a grave issue when European settlers arrived in the region.
The levy of taxes and the enforced labor left the Natives with no means of surviving the takeover (Leonard, p. 960). They also had little chances to defend themselves against the newer technology of the Europeans. This combined with natural disasters such as droughts and flooding that wiped out much of the Native livelihood made the populations diminish by thousands each year (Jennings, p. 900). The remainders of surviving Natives were a weakened nation that would be further weakened in the nineteenth century when American Indian relocation took place. Many fled toward the Appalachians, but in the end they would all be pushed west towards Texas and Oklahoma, where large reservations are still in existence today (Josephy, p. 941).
The Mississippian Native Americans were a complex nation of various warring tribes that became extremely popular with their practice of mound building. The construction of these mounds banded the tribes together with each other and some are even still available for people to view today (Joseph, p. 881). Although they shared many traits with the other Native cultures, they also created their own identity through use of items specific to river regions. While constant power struggles with each other often kept tribes at odds, they flourished until arrival of the European settlers. The advanced technology of new settlers and the arrival of diseases never before seen aided the destruction of this interesting culture.
Jennings, Jesse D. Prehistory of North America. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1968. 246-82. Print.
Joseph, Frank. Advanced Civilizations of Prehistoric America: The Lost Kingdoms of the Adena, Hopewell, Mississippians, and Anasazi. Rochester, VT: Bear, 2010. Print.
Josephy, Alvin M. “The Tribes of the Southeastern United States.” The Indian Heritage of America. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1968. 103-13. Print.
Kehoe, Alice Beck. North American Indians: A Comprehensive Account. Englewood
Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1981. Print.
Leonard, Jonathan Norton. Great Ages of Man Ancient America. New York: Time Life, 1974. 61. Print.